Bhavnagar – Markets, photography, domestic quarrels

My routine in Bhavnagar was set from the very first day. That morning I braved the ad hoc traffic on the Bhidbhanjan Chowk by the Bhidbhanjan Mahadev temple and walked towards the busy markets at Ghogha Gate where I stopped at Govind restaurant for breakfast. Here, puris were whipped out of a large iron cauldron bubbling with hot oil, plates of buttery pavs and greasier bhajis were doled out in quick time and for those who truly had no fear of diabetes or cholesterol, deep fried ghatiyas with an assortment of sweet and spicy pickles were brought forth in plentiful amounts.

After this calorific feast, I went to the grungy chai stall a couple of blocks away where every chai drinker appeared to know everyone else and I had to put up with the collective stare every time I ventured in. But this was a great place to sit (or stand) for a while watching the life on the street. It was Id-ul Milad that day and the street was buzzing with one vibrant, colourful procession after another with trucks and floats decorated in all manner of gaudy colors and kids riding atop adorned with turbans and large groups of men marching on foot waving their flags. Many of the trucks had people distributing sweets and snacks and while this entire parade was being done under heavy security cover, it was a scene that was joyful to behold.

To let my system digest the greasy food and acidic chai, I walked about the old town area whose lanes were endowed with a generous sprinkling of old world architecture, much of it truly gothic in appearance. The first place I went to, winding past the doors of a Jain temple and numerous sweet marts, was the bustling fruit and vegetable market, not to buy fruits and vegetables but because I’d read on the internet that this was a great place to take pictures. It was housed in a dingy, grimy building with decades of grease and dirt texturing the walls. Rows of vendors were labouring in stalls furnished with rusty fans and light bulbs and decorated with pictures of multifarious gods and ancestors who might have worked those very stalls years ago.

Although I’d grown up in India and had seen many of these markets in my life, I was still amazed that, even in this digital age, timeless places like these existed where life went on like it always had. Until i.e. in all that excitement, I whipped out my DSLR camera and made every head in the space turn and brought it decidedly down to the digital age. Some wondered if I was a news reporter, another anxious guy who took the trouble to walk all the way from one end of the hall wished to know if I was with the Muncipal Corporation, three other dudes showed up requesting facebook profile pictures, one young boy was sure I was a foreigner because he had seen a white person taking pictures of the market a few months ago.

I might not be a foreigner but I certainly felt like a tourist and it felt strange to be a tourist in a place that doesn’t see any tourists. Nevertheless, I braved the attention and smiled awkwardly at anyone who met my eye to get to the far end of the hall where an aged man was sweeping the dust off the floors while workers laboured at hauling big baskets of fruits and vegetables from the large jute sacks to the stalls. The dust had the effect of highlighting the light shafts that slanted into the hall through the latticed windows creating a scene that was truly cinematic. It helped that the people who made me the center of attention had decided they had given me enough of that and went back to work making me feel less conscious as I was capturing the scenes of them working in the gorgeous light.

After this photographic tour, I walked back to M.G. Road, the main market street, to look at the old buildings, many of whom had retained their ornamental wooden facades. Inside them, businessmen and tailors worked away and their activities could be glimpsed through quaint windowed galleries. I took out my camera again to snap pictures and people came up to me to ask if I was making a film or doing a survey and when they learnt that I was only interested in the beauty of the architectures, they pointed me in the direction of other old buildings hidden away in the alleys, some lived in and well preserved housing shops and residences behind grand facades, some quite dilapidated and ghostly in appearance but still preserving remnants of the gothic trimmings.

After hours of walking about the alleys of the market, I exhaustedly took refuge in the confines of an old, begrimed chai shop which was housed in a building reminiscent of an art deco structure and whose interiors were furnished with a few wooden tables and stools.  Here, a woman was complaining to her husband about the botched embroideries on a sari she had given to one of the tailors toiling away in the building opposite to us. The husband didn’t know what to say or do about it. He then saw the camera I had kept on the table and asked if I could take a picture of the piece so he could send it to a tailor he trusted in Ahmedabad to see if he could fix it. Before I could respond, another man who was sitting in a corner came up to him and introduced himself as a tailor and said he could give it a shot if he wished.

The woman, having already suffered an inferior work at the hands of a local tailor, said she would only pay him after seeing what he’s done with it. The man refused to work without an advance payment. The husband didn’t mind paying him a little if it got the work going. The woman yelled at her husband for being such a gullible twit and blamed their financial troubles on his general timidity in dealing with other people. The tailor decided he had enough of this domestic quarrel and squirreled away. After his wife had calmed down, as I was finishing my cup of chai, the husband came back to me and asked if I could take a picture of the sari. Before I could say yes, the woman launched into him again and said there was no need for a picture because unless she met this tailor friend of his and clearly explained what needed to be done there was no need to whatsapp him pictures and get his hopes up.

Before the man could drag me back into the conflict, I finished my cup of chai with a mighty gulp and left the scene. It had been an eventful first day in the old town of Bhavnagar.

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Agartala – Luxury rooms, haute cuisine, cinema verite

Outside the Jogendranagar station, Vivek, Fayyaz and I were greeted with the perfect storm of honking, deafening, clashing traffic, swirling winds lifting dust off the streets and pushing it onto our faces, and an onrush of rickshaw-pullers and rickshaw drivers beckoning us to go with them for highly inflated rates. Fayyaz and Vivek acted as if they had seen this plenty of times as they nonchalantly evaded the chaos and crossed the street miraculously avoiding multiple potentially debilitating traffic accidents. As I gingerly stumbled across the street, clinging on to dear life, I could see the “What’s this, amateur hour?” expressions scribbled in bold letters on their faces.

Both of them had booked the same hotel in the city because they believed it was the only hotel worth staying at if you weren’t a millionaire. Since I didn’t have a place to stay, I followed them to the Central Guest House, where a flight of stairs led past the doors of a bank to dank and narrow corridors leading to small and dingy rooms lit by lone, weary light bulbs and furnished with squat toilets. Fayyaz and Vivek happily took the squat toilet rooms that they snagged for 250 Rs.

I was going to walk out and find another, more cheerful place to stay but just as I was about to do so, one of the attendants asked me to follow him upstairs and have a look at a “luxury” room. The luxuries here were a tubelight, a small wooden shelf to keep your things, a western commode whose flush was broken and instead of the 10 foot by 4 rooms below, a more spacious 10 foot by 6 area to live in. These additional amenities cost a 150 Rs. more and with some bargaining help from Fayyaz, I got the room rate down to 350.

We were all pretty hungry by the time we freshened up and dumped our bags in the room. Vivek was a vegetarian and much to Fayyaz’s disappointment, he suggested we go to one of the only vegetarian places he found affordably edible in the city, a sterile food court type restaurant on the top floor of a clothes mall. Fayyaz had now become so attached to Vivek that he joined us regardless of his misgivings about having to eat vegetarian food at the end of a long journey.

Vivek, who considered himself a connoisseur of the multifarious items available at the different counters, insisted on placing all our orders. When our orders arrived, Fayyaz and I exchanged knowing glances, perhaps because we were thinking the same thing i.e. how in the hell were we going to eat any of the food put before us on the table. We stared helplessly at the plates of leaky chaat, greasy, borderline nauseating thalis, pizza dosa, a revoltingly buttery paneer tikka masala and a bowl of jeera rice sprinkled with a generous amount of oil. We hadn’t eaten anything for over 8 hours but even our hunger pangs chose not to trouble us anymore having had a look at the food that was meant to satisfy them.

Vivek, though, was singularly untroubled by this sight and went about his business of demolishing one plate after the other with the ferocity of a lion lunching on its prey after a successful hunt. Fayyaz and I took turns at gentle nibbles of bits of edible portions of a naan here, some dal there, a bit of papad. After a while, Fayyaz had enough of this and pretended to be busy on a phone call and vanished. Vivek was so busy gorging on the food that he didn’t realise Fayyaz had left until 10 minutes later. When I had seen that stuff land on the table, I felt guilty for all the food that would go wasted, fears that turned out to be entirely irrational as I watched Vivek devour every artery-clogging dish he had ordered.

Once he had wiped all the oil off his fingers and his face and Fayyaz had returned from his imaginary phone call and a clandestine street food meal, Vivek wondered if we were game for dessert and coffee. He was gone before we could say no after which Fayyaz turned to me and wondered how Vivek hadn’t collapsed of a heart attack yet. Our gluttonous acquaintance then arrived with 2 plates of gulab jamun, one of rosogulla and 3 cups of coffee, coffee that was so bad it tasted like a hot cup of citrine gruel. I took it with me on the pretext of going to the washroom and dumped it in the dustbin when no one was looking.

As if this exhausting meal and the exertions of the day hadn’t been enough, Vivek now wanted to go watch a movie. The only ones playing in Agartala that day were Tera Intezaar starring Arbaaz Khan and Sunny Leone and Firangi starring the most popular and hence over-rated comedian in India, Kapil Sharma. I would have been happy to see neither and gone to my room to sleep but just the memory of the 10 x 6 room that awaited me made want to spend more time outdoors. Vivek and Fayyaz were partial towards Tera Intezaar because as Fayyaz, looking longingly at the Sunny Leone poster said, “Unhe dekhne toh hum chaand tak bhi jaa sakte hain.” (I could even go to the moon to see her)  Both were highly disappointed when the guy at the ticket counter informed them that they had to cancel the show because of low occupancy.

Vivek and Fayyaz were quite crestfallen to hear this and had no option but to go for the alternative. I was extremely hungry because I hadn’t eaten anything at the food court and I got myself a big plate of nachos, a cup of coffee and a large tub of popcorn. When Vivek saw this he said, “You’re still hungry after eating so much? You should take care of your health. Eating so much food is not good for you.” I resisted the temptation to slap his face.

Before the film began, Fayyaz told me he was quite a fan of Kapil Sharma’s show and he hoped the film would be in a similar vein of nonsense humour. But, alas, like perhaps many a Kapil Sharma fan in the world, he was distressed to find that this was his comedy idol’s attempt at “sensible cinema”. Set in the pre-Independence era, the film plodded along with one unfunny scene after the other where the only goal appeared to have been to show that this dude, who headlined the silliest of talk shows in the world, could also “act”. 30 minutes into the film, I could hear loud stereophonic droning noises, one from the left and one from the right. Vivek and Fayyaz had snored off to deep sleep. It was midnight hour and there was no reason for me to continue watching that drivel. So I walked back to my 10 by 6 at the Central Guest House to sleep off the hectic day.

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Melaka – Jonker 88 and other sweets

“Hey, how you doin’?”, squeaked a voice from behind me as I turned a corner on a random stroll through Jonker street.

“Me?”, I asked the lady who posed the query.

“Yes, you.”

“Doing fine. How’re you?”

“It’s a hot day. You wanna try some sweets?”

If it was India, I would have moved on but since I was in Melaka, I was curious to know what she was selling. It was a tiny little shop with a couple of chairs put up outside and boxes of sweets piled all over the place. The woman who called me out and ran the shop was dressed in a bright red floral skirt and had layers of plastic surgery and make-up on her face to cover the wrinkles and her age.

“I knew you like sweets because you’re from India,” she said.

“How do you know I’m from India? I could also be Malay or Pakistani.”

“Because you carry your bag on one shoulder. Malay would never do that because he know he would get robbed by bikers. Anyway, come sit. Taste some of this.”

She opened a large enamel bowl filled with a thick, gooey, jelly-like substance, carefully ran a spoon in to pluck the smallest amount possible and gave me what was easily the tiniest portion of a dessert I’ve ever been offered. It tasted mildly sweet, a bit eggy, with a hint of saltiness. It was weird but as soon as I was done consuming it, I hankered for more.

“How do you like it?”, she asked.

“Interesting, although I’ll need to taste some more to know if I want to buy it.”

“Some more? It’s expensive, lah. One spoon 30 dollars. A full box 2000 dollars. You have money?”

“Never mind then. What is it anyway?”

“It’s called Bird’s Nest, one of the most expensive delicacy from China.”

“Oh, interesting. What’s it made of?”

I wish I hadn’t asked because what I heard had the effect of making me want to throw up right away.

“Bird saliva”, she said casually, like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Take it to your family, lah. It’s precious and rare. You don’t get it in India.”

“It’s too expensive”, I said.

“Only 50$ for this one box. Not expensive. It’s diluted.”

“I don’t have that kind of money and I don’t plan to be in India for a few months. How do they get the saliva anyway? Someone stands under trees while the birds spit?”

“No, lah”, she said, laughing, “We have a factory where birds make nests. I can take you if you want.”

“I think I’m okay not seeing that. Is there any place nearby where you get a good dessert that doesn’t cost 2000$ and isn’t made of bird saliva?”

“You want to eat dessert?”, she asked, looking at me as if it was the most ridiculous notion in the world.

“Yeah, dessert would be good.”

“Give me a minute”, she said and then hollered at a fat kid who was playing a couple of blocks away. She gave him some instructions in Chinese and then turned to me and said, ”Okay, let’s go.”

She took me to a place called Jonker 88, a claustrophobic cafe set in an old Chinese shophouse. The atmosphere was remarkably old-fashioned with quaint pictures of old Melaka and Chinese artwork adorning the walls, shelves packed with ornamental trinkets, little Chinese dolls and toys stacked on a mirrored gallery and a few wooden stools and tables packed close in a tiny space. It was packed to the gills with people slurping laksa bowls and cooling themselves off with icy desserts.

We had to wait in a queue to place our orders and when Yue Xi, for that was the name of the Bird’s Nest lady, saw that the Australian couple in front of us was taking an inordinately long time to decide, she took matters into her own hands and told them she could order for them if they wished. Bowled over by her confidence, they relented. Xi invited them to eat with us and when they agreed, she ordered four different things in super quick time. The people making our dessert were equally quick as big globs of ice were shoved into a machine to be shaved and then transferred onto bowls where they added the ingredients as per our orders.

We carried our four large bowls of cendol, Malaysia’s favorite dessert, to the only vacant table we could find, right below large red and blue frames of Mandarin calligraphy. Cendol is essentially shaved ice, gula melaka (a local variety of palm sugar), santan (coconut milk), a sprinkling of flavoured syrups and sometimes green rice noodles and durian. I thought the durian version was too sweet but there was one bowl with peanuts and jelly and an assortments of tangy syrups that was absolutely fantastic.

I learnt a few things about Yue Xi from the conversation the Australians had with her. They had been to China the previous year and wondered if she too came from China. She did, but her family left the country during the volatile period in the 60s to take refuge in the town of Ipoh in Malaysia. She had a tough childhood when her parents worked around the clock, working in a tin mining factory during the day and selling noodles in the market at night. But they pulled through and eventually moved to Melaka when one of her cousins had the enterprising idea of harvesting swiftlets for the much sought-after birds-nest delicacies in China. She then went on to explain the entire laborious process of extracting the raw material and processing it to make it ready for consumption, information that I could have done without because it made even the amazing cendol bowls on the table feel unappetizing.

Just as I was stopping the cynic in me from wondering if this entire conversation was a marketing pitch, Yue Xi snapped in her trademark squeaky tone, “I can take you to see the factory if you want. And then you can come to my shop and see if you want to buy some to take home.” The Australians sounded very excited by the idea and said they would love to go. She looked at me sardonically and asked, “You still don’t wanna go?” I was absolutely sure, I said.

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Dhakuri

It was cold outside when we left the dhaba whose warm interiors compensated for the foul, musty odor. D insisted we leave at 5 am because his friend, whose vehicle we were hiring, had to ferry it back to Bageshwar in the morning. I was happy to have bought the thermals, the feather jacket and the woollen skull cap the previous evening. The owner of the dhaba, who wore a gruff, battle hardened demeanour that could have walked out of any grimy old western, thumped two big glasses of tea for us before he went to attend to the day’s business of chopping meat and onions for the food he had to prepare for his patrons.

A talkative, amiable Panditji (a priest) who lived in one of the villages on the Pindari route joined us on the trek. He appeared to be well acquainted with D and when he came to know of our misfortunes of the previous day, he gave D an earful for not ringing the bells and paying his respects to the shrine of a Himalayan deity on the way. As soon as we reached the location of the deity where a small stone idol of a fiery goddess was hidden away inside a rocky niche, Panditji fished out a bell and performed an elaborate ritual chanting mantras and singing hymns. After this, he plastered a large patch of vermillion on my forehead with his thumb and asked me to put in some money.

I laughed and said, “No, thank you. I don’t believe in all this.”

Panditji gave me a fiery stare that may have made the most fearsome creatures tremble with fear and said, “What do you mean you don’t believe? This is why you weren’t allowed to walk in these mountains. You have to take the permission of the goddess to do anything here. This is her territory. If you don’t, you’ll have to repent for it. So be sensible and give her an offering.”

“But what if someone else takes the money?”, I said.

“These are the Himalayas. No one would dare to take the money you keep here. It’ll only go to the goddess. Anyone who steals her money will only go to hell.”

D pulled me aside and whispered in my ear to put in some money so we could move on. I obeyed quietly and the moment the 100 Rs. note reached the shrine of the goddess, Panditji’s demeanour returned to its default mode of gentle affability.

After this ritual, Panditji and D abandoned the clear trail in front of us and took a perilous short cut that cut down to a stream. When we crossed a wobbly log bridge to clamber on to a rock on the other side, I noted that there was no discernible path visible beyond. Panditji and D were quietly sitting on a large boulder smoking a round of bidis. I asked D how we were to proceed ahead. He asked me to calm down, relax for 5 minutes and take a few puffs of the bidis.

“This is your trial by fire”, he said, once the 5 minutes were up. Pointing at a nearly vertical, mossy, rocky section hanging above us, he calmly informed me that we had to clamber over it. The very sight of it made me dizzy and nauseous with vertigo. I had never done any rock climbing in my life because I have always been petrified of height and while this was technically more of a clamber up mighty boulders than climbing up a vertical precipice, it still made me shiver with fright. I asked D if we could continue on the easier trail we had abandoned.

D looked at me and said, “This is going to save us an hour of walking. These are our mountains. You have to trust them and the people who take you. Like I said, this is your trial by fire. If you do this, I will believe you can do this trek. If not, there’s no point in hiring me to take you. You don’t come to the mountains to walk on roads, you come for the hardship and the adventure.”

Panditji decided he had enough and went ahead. Watching him climb the hillside with reptilian agility made me feel a bit embarrassed. I did not want come across as a coward and so I began scrambling up. Every time I slipped a little, D was up on a boulder above to lend me a helping hand. Halfway into the climb, I was thoroughly exhausted and gasping for air. When I looked down, in complete defiance of D’s advice NOT to look down, I felt even worse. The wooden log bridge that we crossed just a few minutes ago looked like a little twig far down below. I’m fatalistic on the best of days but here I had resigned myself to my fate. But D’s encouraging words spurred me on and when I finished my clumsy fearful scramble to the top, I felt as if I had climbed Mount Everest.

D appeared happier than I was when he saw that I had negotiated this stretch without any debilitating injuries. “Now that you’ve done this”, he said, “nothing on this trek will be difficult for you.” I told him that I sincerely hoped he was right because I felt as if all the energy in my body had been sucked out with the climb.

The route ahead was mercifully on a gentler incline and the landscape became gradually more ethereal. We walked through large verdant meadows, thick oak forests and misty alpine highlands. Soon, the sun became obscured by a bank of clouds that shrouded us in a blanket of white wrapping the trees and the hills in ghostly shades of grey. We took shelter inside a little hut made of stone and covered with a perfunctory plastic tarp where an old man made us tea while we waited out a sudden hailstorm that battered us.

After we resumed walking, the trail became significantly more brutal as we neared the Dhakuri pass where the steep climb through grassy slopes and jungly paths sliding through chestnut and oak forests was complicated further by the slippery terrain occasioned by the rain. While crossing another grassy hillside, we passed the grave of Peter Kost, a German trekker who suffered a cardiac arrest at the spot in 2000, a poignant reminder that not all walks in the mountains ended happily.

As I slipped and slid up to the vast, highland meadows at Dhakuri, I was greeted by a ginormous view of the Nanda Devi range hanging in the distance above and beyond the KMVN Tourist Rest House. It was the first time I had seen the Himalayas so close and all the pain and effort I had to put in to get here melted away. We rested at the Dhakuri Rest House for an hour, getting a meal of dal, roti, vegetables and numerous cups of tea and then resumed our journey to Khati.

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Bhavnagar – Getting there

The Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation has an app that lets you book seats online. So I downloaded it, filled a sign up form and after a number of app crashes managed to book seat 21, a 4th row window seat on the 11 am bus going from Vadodara to Bhavnagar. Having travelled in Indian state transport buses for much of my traveling life, it was a comfort to know that I wouldn’t have to fight for a seat or get crushed by a stampede of passengers wanting to get in or travel 5 hours standing all the way.

But as India regularly reminds you, things are never what they seem (or are promised) to be. The platform number that the app said my bus would leave from was non-existent and it took long sweaty run-arounds from the enquiry counter to the various platforms to figure out where I had to wait for the bus I had booked. Finally, I found it in the most old-fashioned way possible, with a conductor yelling “Bhavnagar” so loudly that the entire neighbourhood could hear it.

There were already a hundred people trying to get in and all the seats had been filled. My frantic demands for my booking to be honoured went completely ignored. I walked back to sit down in the waiting area to think a little. Did I really want to go to Bhavnagar? Was it worth all this trouble? Was I too old for this shit?

These existential ruminations were interrupted by the conductor yelling the number “21” in all directions as the driver assumed his position and began to start the engine. I ran as quickly as I could to take my rightful seat which, to my considerable disappointment, wasn’t the promised window seat on the fourth row but the middle seat on the second which was the row right next to the door. Like a lot of things in the modern world, here was a distinct difference between the dreams advertised online and the downers that existed in real life.

I felt sorry for the old man who had to vacate seat no. 21 on my account. But my empathies wouldn’t last long as he promptly took the little bit of room left next to the person sitting on the aisle seat thus squeezing the space available to me even further. To the old man, things couldn’t have worked out better because the easy access to the door gave him the liberty to chew all the paan he had on his hands (which was quite considerable) and spew these contents out of his mouth every time the conductor opened the door to let passengers hitching on the highway into an already jampacked bus. I saw people sitting on the aisle, people sitting on the engine, people sitting on people and one particular person who was sitting on top of my head making the 3 inches of the backrest handle his home.

To compound this misery, the driver, either in a state of depression from an emotionally wrenching heartbreak or in a spectacular display of bad taste, insisted on playing the most cantankerous song in the history of Hindi cinema i.e. “Ishq Mein Nachenge” from Raja Hindustani, a song I had considered myself fortunate to have never heard since I first did back in 1998, on a loop for the entire length of the journey. There were no signs of protest from the other passengers and some thoroughly enjoyed this atrocity and hummed along to it. I felt like my ears were being Clockwork Orange’d to deafness and my brains being reduced to mush.

I couldn’t distract myself by staring at the scenery outside either, my views being blocked from all sides. The people around me killed the time by socialising with each other and I felt like that awkward introvert at a cocktail party who didn’t know anybody or what they were saying. It was only 2 and a half hours later when we reached the town of Dholera that I got anything resembling air and a bit of quiet. The bus stopped here for tea and snacks and we all stood there drinking tea and eating snacks staring at the beauteous sight of a large cement grinder whipping up dust across the road. The landscape here was industrial, scrubby, parched, arid and dry. Dholera was earmarked as one of India’s numerous futuristic smart cities. I guess it takes time build one of those.

Half the bus emptied at Dholera because many of the people who had hopped in were labourers working at the various construction sites in the town. One of these people happened to be the person sitting next to me and I felt happy as a 6 year old child at getting a window seat for the rest of the journey. If the vistas pre-Dholera were anything like post-Dholera, I hadn’t missed out on an awful lot of beautiful scenery. The landscape was both bucolic and industrial, a woman herding her sheep by the side of the road, men fishing on the sandy banks of a lake far in the distance, dry grasslands and scrublands forming the periphery of the Blackbuck Sanctuary, egrets and herons resting on the waterbodies adjacent to the chemical plants where large mounds of salt waited in the sun to be processed.

My hotel in Bhavnagar was a 20 minute walk from the bus stand. The rickshaw drivers offered to take me there for 30 Rs. but the weather was pleasant, my bags were light and I chose to walk  following google maps which showed me a short cut that went through a large park area adorned with strange sculptures of muscular men exercising. The gardens were well-kept and had quaint little bridges running over stagnant pools of water and kids played and frolicked about the grass and the slides. It wasn’t a bad place to begin looking at a new town.

Hotel Comfort Inn, at the edge of a traffic circle and hidden away above a Laxmi Narayan temple was exactly what it promised, a no frills, barebones place where the bathroom was tolerably clean and the plumbing worked. One didn’t expect anything more for 400 Rs. It was a long day and I needed a few cups of tea to nourish myself. So I walked down to a large traffic circle, past the quaint old, colonnaded edifice that housed the Bhavnagar Muncipal Corporation office, to a heavily busy chai stall populated by office goers and college students and spent the rest of the evening watching people while drinking bottomless cups of chai.

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Conversations on the 55664 Passenger from Silchar to Agartala

It was 7 in the morning and I was feeling crabby because I hadn’t sufficiently recovered from the exertions of the previous day. But I had a train to catch within an hour and Silchar wasn’t a place to linger for more than a night. I needed a cup of tea but as it turned out, the restaurant at the Center Palace Hotel had run out of milk and couldn’t figure out how to make tea without it. So I left the hotel in a huff swearing never to stay there ever again.

I entered Coach B1 of the Silchar-Agartala Passenger in a bad mood. When I saw that my seat, a window seat, was occupied by a short, bald man in an undershirt, I flipped out. I bawled at him to vacate it immediately because it belonged to me. The man laughed and asked me why I was getting so angry. He shifted a bit closer to the window to make more more space on the middle seat and requested me to occupy it. This made me even angrier but before I could burst an artery, the ticket collector arrived. I told the TC that the short, bald dude was sitting on the seat assigned to me. The TC turned to me and said, “Aap ki umar kya hai? Bacchon jaisi harkat kar rahe ho. Baithiye chup chaap.” (How old are you? Stop acting like a child. Sit quietly.”)

The man occupying my seat smiled victoriously, grabbed a flask and poured a cup of hot chai for me in reconciliation, which had the effect of calming my nerves immediately. He happily poured another cup and in a matter of seconds, had become my best friend in the entire world. His name was Fayyaz, he said, and he worked as a garment merchant in Kanpur. He had to visit Agartala every month to monitor some of the vendors there, a tough 4 day train journey to and fro. I asked him why he didn’t just fly in and he said it was too expensive and the train journey sometimes helped him build business connections with people on the way.

On cue, a wiry, young man sitting opposite to us introduced himself to Fayyaz as a garment merchant from North Lakhimpur. His name was Vivek and he too had to travel up and down to Agartala frequently to see how things were going with his vendors. The two began conversing on the intricacies of the garment trade, how the middlemen were getting fickler, how the profit margin had been tightening, how the quality of merchandise was going down and both had a common cause until Fayyaz brought up the sticky topics of demonetisation and GST driving his business down the deep end.

Vivek revealed himself to be a card-carrying supporter of the BJP and began vociferously defending the government’s contentious policies. He conceded that his business had been hit in the short term but it was a small sacrifice to make for the greater good. He took a snide dig at Fayyaz saying the reason businessmen like him didn’t like the Modi government’s economic policies was because it was meant to clean things up, something people used to the old underhanded way of doing things wouldn’t be happy about.

Seeing that matters were heating up a little, the gentleman seated in a corner, who was a professor of Tribal Studies at a college in Agartala and who had been quiet until this moment, chimed in to lighten things up with his own remarks about the Communist Government that he had to endure in Tripura. “The Communists also said they would never let any corruption happen in their rule,” he said, “There was a time when we believed everything they did was right. But look at them today, except for Manik babu (the then CM of Tripura), many are corrupt to the core. The same is true of the BJP. Modi may be clean but his image may camouflage the corruption done by other people in the government.”

“The word corruption doesn’t exist in the DNA of the BJP,” said Vivek, vehemently, “something you Communists would never understand.”

The Professor laughed and said, ”Son, when I was your age, I was a hardcore Communist too but today I know that was a mistake. It takes time to learn things. I hope you don’t have to learn the bitter truths about your beliefs as brutally as some of us have. But I’ll tell you one thing, if Tripura goes to polls tomorrow, Modi is sure to win because I went to one of his rallies and the way he bowled over the crowd that day, a crowd that had been cheering for Manik Sarkar and the Communists for 20 years, nobody stands a chance.”(Tripura would go to polls in a couple of months after I made this journey and the BJP won a landslide victory in the state overthrowing the Communist government that had been in power for 20 years.)

He then turned his attention to a woman and her 8 year old daughter who were sitting on the window seat opposite to Fayyaz and who had been quietly listening to us talk and asked them where they were from. They were originally from Sylhet, they said, and were on their way back from visiting relatives in Silchar to Agartala where they lived. The girl was unhappy about the fact that they were returning because she found Silchar, with its malls and restaurants and cinemas, a lot more fun. Agartala was too boring, she said, because she had to go to school and she loved her cousins in Silchar whose company she sorely missed.

The Professor’s eyes perked up when he heard this. “You’re from Sylhet?”, he said, a cheek-reddening smile brightening up his face, “I grew up in Sylhet.” He then turned to me and said, “Sylhetis are the most snobbish people you’ll ever meet. Nothing you do can ever satisfy their high standards. They think they’re the most intelligent, that they write the best books and that they’re the best cooks in the world. If you go to England, every curry house or “Indian” restaurant has  a Sylheti chef in the kitchen.” The woman laughed and nodded in affirmation.

Vivek appeared pained to find himself in this confluence of Sylhetis in an Indian train. “If you like Sylhet so much, why don’t you go live there?”, he said, making no attempt to mask his anger. The Professor smiled at him and said, “Because our family lost everything we had after the 1971 war and the only place we could go was across the border to India. I’m sure these two have the same story. If you look at Tripura in the map, you’ll see that it is surrounded by Bangladesh. The only original inhabitants here are the tribal people. How do you tell whether a Bengali is from India or Bangladesh?”

“All that is fine but our country is already overpopulated. How do you expect us to accommodate people who come from outside? If you go by religion. India is the only big Hindu country in the world. So it makes sense to give more opportunities to Hindus who are jobless here, right?”

“Tell me one thing. When you go seek vendors in the market in Agartala, do you ask them what religion they belong to before you transact business?”

“No, I don’t because I have no problems with Indian muslims. I only have a problem with Bangladeshi muslims who take Indian jobs. They’re here only because of the Communists. India already has too many people. Why do we need more?”

The Professor sighed and looked at Fayyaz and asked him if he agreed with Vivek. To his astonishment, Fayyaz said he did. “Then I have nothing to say,” he said, “There’s nothing I can say that will change your mind. But if you ever need tips on where to eat in Agartala, this Bangladeshi will always be at your service.” The  Professor pulled me aside and said, “You seem to be the only person doing anything useful in Tripura. So make sure you go to Chabimura. It’s fairly remote but it’s the most beautiful place in the state, even more than Unakoti and Matabari. Hope you have a good time here.”

After this, the Professor didn’t say a word until the end of the journey while Fayyaz and Vivek gabbed among themselves about the garment business. All of us got off at Jogendranagar instead of Agartala because it was closer to the city centre where we had to fight the dust and the logjammed traffic to cross over and find a rickshaw that would take us to Agartala.

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Melaka – Crossing the border, inebriated conversations, thosas

Border crossings don’t come easier than the one between Singapore and Johor Bahru in Malaysia. Although I was glad it happened the way it did when it did, today, as I write about it, I’m disappointed at how boring and undramatic it was. A quick bus from the Queen Street Bus Terminal dropped me off at the immigration where my passport at both points was stamped with lightning quick efficiency. Since I had a through ticket, I could hop into any bus that went to Johor Bahru where I had to wait for a few minutes for a bus to Melaka to come through.

The sparklingly clean AC bus wound its way on a perfectly tarred road through small towns, palm oil plantations, roadside diners, a winding river and a gaudy theme park to drop me off at the Melaka Central Bus Station on the outskirts of the city where I quickly found bus no. 17 that took me up to the Dutch Square close to the old historic part of the town where all the backpacker digs were helpfully clustered. All of this was remarkably easy but I wasn’t complaining. It felt good to finally hit the road in the more spacious landscape of a country as opposed to a city-state like Singapore where one could traverse its length and breadth in a matter of an hour.

I hung about the Dutch Quarter for a bit gaping at the Church and the clock tower, both incredibly old but looking so bright and shiny they could have been built just the day before. Then I crossed the bridge over the murky waters of the Malacca river, where a monitor lizard poked its head up to stare at the new arrival in its city, to get to Jonker Street whose entrance, for some reason, had been adorned with a large colourful balloon resembling a furious dragon whose body curved around the buildings in the street.

This was the old quarter of Melaka with a substantial sprawl of old architecture, principally Chinese shop-houses, spread around its lanes. But even if many of the houses looked beautiful and the area had an unmistakably timeless atmosphere to it, it also felt considerably gentrified. Many of these quaint, old houses were now either boutique hotels or cafes or “homestays” or some business establishment to serve touristic needs.

After walking in and out of numerous guesthouses, I finally settled into the Riverview Guesthouse which seemed to have the best mix of affordability, comfort and character. The owner was highly affable and when he saw that I came from India, he told me to go to this place called Selvam across the river for the best “Thosas” in Melaka. I scoffed at this suggestion saying, “I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food.” He laughed and said, ”That’s what they all say.”

As someone who likes his history, walking by the riverside promenade made my head spin. I was walking in the ancient Malacca town by the Malacca river which flowed into the Malacaa Strait, the legendary port of call that was the prime hub of trading activity from Arabia, China, Persia and Africa and that, even today, thousands of years later, serves as one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The promenade was littered with bars and cafes and I chose a place that looked quaint and pretty to read quietly with a beer in tow.

“You reading Graham Greene?”, said a patronising voice from behind me.

“Yeah”, I said, a bit rudely, hoping he would go away.

He came closer to read the title, “Collection of Short Stories. Ah, how’s it?”

“It’s good”, I said, “Some of them are good, some not so great.”

“I love Graham Greene”, he said, “The Quiet American? Great book that. Do you mind if I join you?”

I said he was welcome to. This gregarious dude who had invited himself to my table was Dave, an American property consultant who handled real estate projects in Singapore. He had married a Malaysian woman who had worked as his secretary when he was working in Singapore and lurked about the bars of Melaka when he had nothing to do. We talked about Graham Greene for a bit and I quickly learned that The Quiet American was the only thing he had ever read. He wasn’t a big reader, he confessed. But he was a big talker who had dunked a fair few intoxiacants down his liver that afternoon.

“I love this town”, he said, “It’s quiet, peaceful, nothing like Singapore. I hate that place, feels like you’re living in a mall. Melaka is more authentic, you know what I mean? The houses are small, the life is easy, you can relax by the river, have a hundred beers without going broke. I never live in Singapore. If I had to, I would rather live in Johor. God I love Malaysian food. Have you had any Malaysian food yet? Finish your beers and we’ll go to this sick joint that does the best Malaysian food ever.”

He droned on about his job, his irrational hatred for the neighboring city state and life in Melaka in a repetitive, circuitous manner and I tuned out, nodding my head perfunctorily while guzzling my beers. It was only when he thumped the table ferociously and said, ”Let’s go eat some Malaysian food!” that I woke up and rejoined the conversation. They say the best things happen to those who wait and it was certainly true in this case because just as I was about to bail out of the “Malaysian dinner”, Dave pulled out his wallet and paid for all my beers. I told him he didn’t have to do that but he said, “Don’t worry about it, my man. You helped me kill an afternoon. Consider this a gesture of gratitude.” I felt guilty about not paying attention to our conversation earlier.

“You’ll love the food here”, Dave said animatedly, “Everyone does.” The place looked familiar, a cluster of tables strewn everywhere, a clientele that conversed largely in Tamil, the pungent smell of sambar mingled with the sounds of crackling rice batter. When I looked up, I knew why. It was “Selvam” and as we took a table, I could see a familiar face walking towards me. It belonged to the owner of the Riverview Guest House who had come with his wife to eat there. He laughed uproariously and said, “’I’m not in Malaysia to eat Indian food’ someone said”.

Thankfully, the Thosai Masala, served on a banana leaf, was good enough to make up for the embarrassment.

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Backwards from Pindari

This is an account of the Pindari Glacier Trek that I had done back in April 2009 and a continuation of this post.

All the passengers got off as the jeep screeched to a halt at Song, a village 5 kms before the trailhead at Loharkhet. The driver had to attend a wedding in the village and was in no mood to go any further just for the two of us. I wondered aloud how much it would cost to persuade him to take the jeep all the way to the trail head. D smirked with a vengeful grin and said, “500 Rs. This is why I asked you to go with my friend. If you had taken my advice, we would have been trekking by now.”

I gently reminded D that I was the boss and we were on a budget and if we have to walk 5 kms more, so be it and let’s move on. We moved on with D leading me on a short cut through a perilous trail that cut across the road. It wasn’t an easy walk for someone as unfit as I was. When we reached a little stream about 3 bends above the road, I was so exhausted that I threw down my bag and copiously washed my face with the icy cold water and asked D if we were there yet. D shook his head helplessly and said we had barely walked a mile. But I felt as if I had been walking all day. I had such a lot of sweat pouring out of my pores that I wondered if something was wrong with the plumbing in my fluid vessels.

We rested on a boulder where D, disappointment writ large across his face, wondered if we should take it easy. Our original plan was to finish the Pindari stretch in 4 long days. Now D broached the idea of doing it in 7 days, in short stretches and resting at more points on the way. When I heard this, the budget traveller in me got a rude shock because I realised I would be paying D 3 extra days than I would if I walked harder and faster. This had the effect an adrenalin shot would have on an ailing body making my senses spike and get their act together.

I heaved my way breathlessly to the Tourist guest house at Loharkhet where the chowkidar in its desolate interiors treated us to some tea and snacks. He was grateful for the human company, he said, because not too many people stopped by. It wasn’t the prettiest of places. The Himalayan peaks were hidden far away and the tall landslide-ridden mountains on the opposite slope were a bit of an eyesore. D was intent on getting the latest updates on local gossip with the caretaker and I had to interrupt their interminable conversation and ask him to move quickly so we have time to do the 24 kms to Khati by sundown.

As I clambered gingerly down a bouldered section that led to a stream on another one of D’s torturous shortcuts, I could feel something soft and squishy underneath my foot. It felt like horse dung or the back of a wet sponge. I shouldn’t have been feeling anything because I was walking with well worn, rugged Woodland shoes. When I leaned down to investigate, I saw a sight that no trekker should ever have to see. The soles had come off and I was standing on a patch of dirt with bottomless shoes.

D, who had already crossed the stream and was halfway up the hill on the other side, looked at me exasperatedly. He spread his arms wide and asked, “What happened now?” I pointed at my shoe. He grumbled his way over and asked if I had any chappals. Of course I didn’t. I was enough of a cheapskate to have never bought any and had been happily tramping all over India for two months on these Woodland shoes.

“We have to go back”, he said.

“Can’t I just go on barefoot?”, I asked, trying to salvage the situation.

“Look at you”, he said, “You can’t walk in the mountains even with your shoes on.  How’re you going to walk barefoot?”

“Good point”, I said, obediently.

He then took this opportunity to gloat about the advice he had given me earlier. “If you had shopped for some of the things I had written in that list, we wouldn’t be in this situation”, he said, “When we go back to Kapkot, you better buy your thermal inners and a good feather jacket because I don’t think your sweater is going to save you when you’re shivering in zero degree cold in my village.”

I was angry but calmed down when he took off his chappals and lent them to me so I could walk back to Loharkhet where we were treated to more tea and snacks by the manager at the Tourist Rest House. The manager gave me a pair of gumboots that he said I could borrow till I found a good pair of shoes. Those shoes were so uncomfortable that they gave me blisters from just 10 minutes of walking down the jungly trail back to the road. My feet were bleeding and I told D that I couldn’t possibly walk any further. We waited by the roadside staring at the landslide-ridden landscapes until we got a ride on the back of a milk van to Kapkote.

In Kapkote, I surrendered to buy whatever D thought I needed for the trek, a sturdy pair of shoes, walking sticks, thermal inners, a thick wind-proof feather jacket, rain cover for the rucksack, slippers, a haul that cost me more than what I had budgeted for the entire trek. But now, I had resigned myself to the elements and chose to do the trek even if it was the last thing I did in my life. We spent the night at a dingy little dhaba on charpoys spread around the kitchen, the odor of rotting potatoes and stale meat filling the room. When D came over the next morning to ask if I wanted to go by the shared jeep, I said no, I’d rather spend a 1000 Rs. and take his friend’s jeep if that option was still available.

“Of course”, he said with a mischievous smile plastered on his face, “Whatever you want. It’s your trek.”

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